archives, wisdom

Geisha Embodiment: The Archetype and the Amateur.

Conventionally defined, a Geisha is a Japanese hostess trained to entertain men with her finely-honed, meticulously-practiced traditions of artful conversation, dance, and song.

Watch her glide and speak and smile, a smile that conveys a thousand carefully-selected messages delivered through her art of non-verbal expression: a dynamic portrait of aspirations to some version of feminine maturity, or perfection, or excellence.

I first learned of her from her depiction in Memoirs of a Geisha, an American film released in 2005. She captivated me, almost as an otherworldly entity, this woman, who through her unflagging devotion and her 10,000 hours of practice, made something of herself somewhere between what ordinary mortals can reasonably expect and what the goddess embodies, expresses, creates.

On a personal note, in younger years, when my primary pursuit was “big, passionate love and unfinished business,” I fully endorsed such a feminine identity unflinchingly. She was a model of an extraordinarily high degree of self-cultivation, an impossible ideal that could be endlessly pursued. She was a ticket to meaning, to beauty.

She was an insurance plan that guaranteed fate and the fulfillment of a heart’s deepest desires.

But the Geisha began to morph as she entertained with her finely-honed, devotedly practiced traditions, transforming from the inside out, as she realized her whole aim was to prove her worth to an in-crowd charmed by her tricks and charms.

As I look back, it was a good sign and a positive direction that I wrote: “I want to become that artist, that Geisha who cultivates to enjoy her crafts and to give them away freely; circling something else, a Geisha cultivates for cultivation’s sake, not to entertain any man.”

In a poetic mood, I wrote the following, and hope these images help you, dear reader, try on, play with, and explore feminine identity the way that the Geisha, figuring like an archetype, has creatively assisted me.


A geisha ritualistically pours her tea, or rather, she pours with intense intention, performing a ceremony requiring delicate care which, within its simple movements, hides patient years of cumulative training that have sharpened her skills. The pouring expresses itself out of these invisible depths at the same time that it, in a feedback loop, continually refines her attention.

She pours water then properly steeps it. Just before the water would have boiled, she drenches sachets filled with leaves and broken bits of cinnamon stick at the bottom of cups without any splashes or dribbles, without any interference that might come of hesitation, fear, the vulnerability to distraction, or cramped energy: she leaves no trace. Her sensibility is seamless with her act, her art, her embodiment.  

The techniques of such careful preparation are internalized so deeply they are etched into bone, pulse with the heart, are encoded into cellular memory. Having fine teaware properly stored and always ready for an occasion, she offers this liquid warmth to her guests who temporarily visit her, delicately pouring as they plunder secrets and pursue questions that roll off their tongues.

She exquisitely balances all of this stinging-hot pouring with the conversational procession by sprinkling in a little history of her traditions without a hitch or an awkward flinch between tea and talk.

She may know the act and art of tea-pouring so well it has established itself as an inborn reflex, but she also knows how to prepare a cheese platter so pleasingly paired with wine, fine chocolate, and artisan breads the synergy explodes in the palettes of guests who revel in nuances of sensory delight.

So attuned to human pleasures, she strategically draws from the libraries of knowledge and know-how tucked inside her quiet mind. She draws forth from her vast storehouses precisely, that is, no more and no less than this very moment truly needs. 

A geisha is harmonized to the barely-perceptible rhythms in her environment, bending and swaying and coordinating with them, but you wouldn’t be able to tell, for she almost swims through air. She is able to synchronize because she rests fully in her body and the subtle channels of energy that flow through it.

She is home to herself, having developed rigorous, yet grateful, acquaintance with a multiplicity of primeval traditions: yogic asanas, pranayama, meditative self-containment, the art of the drishti — or that of focusing one’s entire attention on a point of fixed contemplation, and radical self-composure

When her tea ceremonies have run their most natural course and her guests hug one another, parting ways with such warm gusto the soul feeds on the nourishment of inner flames soulfully communing brightly, she heads for the hills to sing their praises and she runs like the wind. On water she floats, on mountains she glides. On pavement she cycles the Endless Revolution of Being.

Indeed, it is in the grace of her movements, the slender strength of her form, the way she gestures with her hands and lively eyes, turning on her entire expressive whole body, that all that is contained in her consciousness reveals itself. It travels from deep channels within to inform, bless, and kiss this unrepeatable moment, channels that channel her innate and cultivated intelligence.

But she isn’t always so poised. In the Geisha she finds her most ideal embodiment, which manifests like magic on extraordinary days in which the divine archetype descends for a momentary time into flesh-and-blood form. Most of her life she lives in a kind of deficient mode, out-of-synch and off-kilter, and you will see it in her sloppiness, ill-posture, and unkempt manner.

Rather than be superficial markers, these betray and reveal everything. Her signature emanation is the dominant vibration of energy those around her feel and experience. She has more work to do. Through prayer, and discipline, and surrender. Which doesn’t replace or prevent her from seeking wisdom directly.

She found out somewhere along the way that insight was cheap, and that the big, hard sun was the true matrix of her deepest healing and education. From that point forward, she knew she must ground all that she came to formally know into the fertile earth, letting it in-form her in a material sense.

She reads daily, and consistently makes headway on her topics of interest, establishing a tradition of letters. Books accompany her at all times. As does her blog feed. Her web of notes and musings. The world’s collective web.

But what happens in the context of lived experience is more difficult, and thus more important, to grind into something valuable; an interior refining mill never ceases desiring labors that chisel, shape, sculpt, and extract from raw ore, gems that are hers and hers alone.  

She is a paradox, poised between her self-containment that is nonetheless a radical openness, letting life have its way with her on its terms, intersecting her, claiming some portion of her life for the day’s objective whims and wanderings. She can better handle and process this paradox as she practices the art of discernment: what to take in and what to shut out, when and for what purposes.

She fluxes with the dynamic flow of the Cosmos because she is deeply sourced in the belly of the Earth’s gyrations yet equally calibrated to the sweep of the periodic moon, the pulsations of night and day, the shadowy underground, the volcanic stirrings, and the way the tilt of the earth induces the seasonal shifts.

She is an extension of Nature, a sturdy twig in its ever-branching manifold of infinite forms, not an isolated subject who needs to reconnect with the trunk and the roots and the canopy of which she knows she is already made.

A geisha is just beginning, and is always already cycling a billion-trillion revolutions training and ever-readying for whenever the Big Event is and whatever it may be. Your rational mind will never solve for this. Your puny intellect will never reconcile it. Your serial processor will be stumped.

She is committed as the loyalty that you only read about in times where virtue was still discussed and yeti still lived in the hills. One could call her devoted and prayerful, persistent and yet so very patient.

She crafts and acquires skills without regard to the class or creed from which they come, though she does know the tawdry from the true. Her ways are civilized and instinctual, her acquisitions are selective and varied, sampled widely and from unsuspecting and uncanny gurus, guides, and gaudy treasure chests.

Her trades don’t pool into narrow specialties. She is equal parts sensual and cerebral, artistic and scientific, feminine and masculine, body and soul.

She practices music, opens up her voice, plays on the black-and-whites, dances, draws with a felt, black pen, adorns rocks with acrylic paint, chants, tastefully decorates, photographs wild blooms, practices asanas on buttes, gathers roadside debris and handfuls of sage, feathers, bones. She peels butterflies off pavement. She collects geologic samples for further inspection and an endless collection.

She has a taste for handcrafted furniture where she places the culinary herbs she grows in terracotta pots. She picks up seashells and finds out their scientific nomenclature and their more common names: Kitten’s Paws, Coquina, Ponderous Ark, Auger, Slipper Shell, Junonia. She likes the aesthetic of the sea and the sky, the desert and the alpine scree, the montane forest and the fins of sandstone that flank it.

I am no claim to any of this. The Geisha gave it away. She is a muse, a divine guide, an archetype composed of the sacred activities of millions of women who’ve accumulated in the collective feminine unconscious. I transmit, express: I listen and train according to what I hear.  

She travels. Mostly alone, preferring solitude and spontaneously unfolding to practically everything else. She travels lightly and with entertainments she doesn’t consider mere luxury items. She is well-adorned, mostly with henna designs, vibrant colors, and secondhand jewelry. She is moonlight disguised as sunshine. She is the catalyst of radiance that a moon eclipsed.

She cycles contemplatively. And tries, with all her knowledge and know-how, with the sum total of her cultivation, to detect the cast lines of fate.


Sarah McKelvey is a free spirit who enjoys introspecting, speculating, and writing about life, love, synchronistic experiences, identity, psyche, self-cultivation, and her various misadventures. She typically writes in the context of traveling, and is informed by Eastern wisdom traditions, depth psychology, and the iconoclastic teachings of Alan Watts. Words are her favorite medium. In her pursuits, she pursues truth, beauty, and goodness, and hopes to, through her endeavors and writing, promote a life-affirming attitude that belongs on the spectrum of love. She lives along the Front Range outside of Denver, and practices psychotherapy professionally.


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